What I would like to discuss is how a roll of toilet paper changed my life.
When I was eight, America faced an unprecedented political crisis. A president had engaged in extra-marital sexual relations. President Bill Clinton was not only unfaithful to his wife, but also perjured himself before the American public. Never before had a president committed adultery, and never before had a president lied. Americans reacted with outrage and scorn and shock, rightfully so. Those with an unshakeable faith in the integrity of political office found themselves haunted by doubt. What if President Clinton’s sexual misconduct hinted at a greater moral degeneracy in Washington politics, or even American life?
As a typical third-grader, my interest in the Clinton case tended towards the sordid. The juridico-epistemological implications of oral sex in the Oval Office eluded my tender mind. My parents shielded me from the harshest headlines, which merely whetted my appetite for the lurid details. Eroticism is, after all, hedged in the inexpressible and the undiscoverable. Consider the bosom of La Zambinella, Balzac’s most perverse confection: “She had removed her costume and was wearing a bodice that accentuated her narrow waist and set off the satin panniers of her dress, which was embroidered with blue flowers. Her bosom, the treasures of which were concealed, in an excess of coquetry, by a covering of lace, was dazzlingly white.” Of course, La Zambinella is actually a castrato. Surprise! Like the abortive affair between Sarrasine and La Zambinella, Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky revealed a mysterious power: a taproot that fed sexual-social vitality and rotted out the distinction between public and private life. “I love it when you call me Big Poppa“—a lyrical summary of the quest for erotic power and its ultimate corruption. Presidential coquetry concealed the castrato’s gaping wound—the deep lack, the unsatisfied want, the desire for desire—that must be filled with collagen and sutured.
Media coverage of the scandal disguised the anatomical and skirted the pornographic. Instead, headlines and sound bites tended towards the erotic, gesturing at the sex but never unveiling its consummation. So I lived in a sort of erotic limbo, searching for the gross truth behind newspapered coquetry. I found reality stashed above a medicine cabinet.
On vacation in DC, I stumbled across a most unusual roll of toilet paper. Dense black letters like sugar ants swarmed over the two-ply. I unspooled the roll with care, reading the text with no small degree of agitation. It was the Starr Report. Sex ed via Kenneth Starr’s surgical legalese—a disturbing proposition for little children everywhere. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.
There are many interpretative approaches to the “Starr Report Toilet Paper.” It’s an obvious commentary on the scatology of the impeachment process, an attack on “conservative” politics, a scribble against prurient legal proceedings—to bracket these facile readings, the toilet paper satirizes the Starr Report’s moral commitments. What of the Report’s material nature though? The toilet paper removes the Report from the courtroom and from the newspaper and invests it with symbolic meaning. Now, the Report signifies a highly ordered moral structure embedded in the American political ethos: fidelity, truth-telling, honor, chastity, and so forth. When inscribed on a roll of toilet, the symbol enters the world of the everyday. The Report’s defined moral system is satirized, but simultaneously validated, because the indictments leveled against the Report depend on the very morals the toilet paper purports to satirize.
At the Hamilton Deli, the most famous sandwich is the Lewinsky. Chicken cutlet, mozzarella, tomato, and “secret sauce.” (Semen guys, get it?!) Just like the Starr Report toilet paper, the Lewinsky satirizes the frenzied moral appeals surrounding the scandal. Yet, its satire also fails, because the sandwich transmits its satirical content in an act of grotesque consumption, an orgy of pseudo-sexual eating that partially simulates the President’s moral lapses, namely the satisfaction of immediate physical needs. For although Republican apologists would claim that the President’s perjury, not his sexual misconduct, lead to his impeachment, the absolute and actual crime stands out like a scarlet letter.
I liked the sandwich and would order it again, despite the lack of impact from the secret sauce.
Next: the Cheese Steak: (Philly cheese steak, onions, hot and sweet peppers, melted American cheese, and secret sauce).